Thursday, 24th September 2020

Mental Health Awareness Week during unusual circumstances

Caring for mental health should always be a priority, but the stark reality of the continually developing situation around the COVID-19 pandemic is creating an untimely peak in poor mental health. As we all live one day to the next, this comes as no surprise. From business-owners, to parents, teachers and healthcare workers, we are all trying to do our best. During this crisis, it is critical that we take the time to recognise and nurture our mental health.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, Digitalisation World spoke to six technology experts on their thoughts around how employees and employers alike can ensure they are paying mental health the attention it needs and deserves in this challenging time.

Encourage openness; tackle the stigma

Despite increased focus and efforts, we are still a long way from regarding or treating mental and physiological health as the same. Liam Butler, AVP at SumTotal, feels, “We need to help to reduce the secrecy and stigma surrounding mental health issues, encourage employees to step forward if they are having mental health problems and make employers reconsider their own attitudes to mental health related illnesses.

“Organisations should take note of forward thinking attitudes when it comes to mental health – take Olark, a US-based tech company: one of its employees made a bold move to explain her absence from work by highlighting her own focus on mental health. The company’s CEO got involved. Not only did he praise her for setting such a noteworthy example, he thanked her for reminding him of the importance of using sick days for mental health and helping to remove the stigma associated with mental health.

“Companies should put in place their own policies and training to support suffering employees, as well as raise mental health awareness. Ultimately, mental health needs to be brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight of the boardroom, so that executives can ensure their employees have access to the resources and support they need.”

Rob Shaw, Managing Director, EMEA at Fluent Commerce, argues, on the other hand, that the issue of mental health and mental wellbeing was once a topic that many people were uncomfortable talking about but now is much more widely – and openly – discussed. He says, “Statistics reveal that 1 in 6 of us will have experienced a mental health problem in the past week alone. The importance, therefore, of ensuring discussions about an illness that will affect so many of us, remains in the spotlight cannot be underestimated. We all have our part to play.

“As an employer there are many things we can do to look after our team’s mental wellbeing. First and foremost is creating a culture where employees can talk openly about how they’re feeling without fear of repercussion. From online resources, having dedicated chat platforms where employees can share concerns, to having a qualified staff Mental Health First Aider, the range of things an employer can do to support employee’s health is vast.”

Battling two threats in one

Sam Humphries, Security Strategist at Exabeam, gives her account of how and why cybersecurity is one of the most stressful careers in the tech industry. She comments: “There is enormous pressure on security analysts to identify threats, mitigate risks and prevent attacks – it’s a relentless task. As a result, information security professionals work excessive hours and are at risk of burnout. Now, with the added pressures around Covid-19, security teams need more support than ever.

“While many people may be enjoying more freedom by working from home, others will be struggling to manage their work/life balance, as the lines between our work and home lives become blurred. Security teams will almost certainly be feeling the latter. Cyberattacks are increasing exponentially and security teams are in overdrive, on high alert fending off scams linked to coronavirus and managing the increased pressure of securing a remote workforce. Many will also be juggling parenting and home-schooling alongside their many professional responsibilities.

“Business leaders should be engaging positively with their security teams during this period, approaching them with compassion, honesty and openness – showing gratitude for all that they do. Open the door to a conversation by asking if people are okay, by staying connected and encouraging staff to be social, and by sharing advice and talking about resources that can help.”

Small steps towards a big change

Kleopatra Kivrakidou, Channel Marketing Manager EMEA at Ergotron, looks into some of the steps employees can take to improve their mental health while working from home:

“Although working from home does have its benefits – zero commute time, more flexibility, more time to spend with the family – those of us who have been (perhaps prematurely) forced into working from home as a result of current global circumstances may be experiencing a lengthy ‘breaking-in’ process. The effects on employee health and wellbeing, impacted by lack of social interaction, and/or by the onslaught of distractions present in the home, can be potentially negative. Additionally, the added pressure of remaining ‘always-on’ is blurring the lines between work- and home-life. Without these clear boundaries, it is all too easy for employees to over-work and feel stressed.

“There are steps everyone can take to reduce and ideally avoid this, as well as (most importantly) look after the health and wellbeing of employees during this challenging time. Taking five-minute breaks regularly throughout the day is an easy way to avoid burnout and boost productivity – never underestimate the power of a tea-break! Maintaining movement whilst working also gives the body and mind a form of active recovery: using a sit-stand desk is one effective means of doing so, as it provides the flexibility of changing positions throughout the day. Adjustable monitor arms also allow a user to ensure the screen is at the perfect distance from the eyes, reducing strain and fatigue. Working from home does not come with a magical handbook – but there are small steps everyone can take in order to make sure that working from home is as comfortable as possible, both physically and mentally.”

The new reality

Nicole Sahin, CEO and Founder of Globalization Partners, looks into why during the COVID-19 pandemic organisations should keep kindness front of mind: “With a nationwide shift to remote working, many individuals have been uprooted and will be adjusting to working in a new setting with new distractions. For many it will be lonely, anxiety-inducing and stressful as a result of decreased communication. Checking in with staff is therefore more important than ever.

"There are a number of ways companies can maintain consistent communication with their employees: video calls, internal newsletters and informal check-ins all let employees know that they are supported and cared about. It also enables organisations to strike a good balance between providing clear health and wellbeing information, and reinforcing team-building messages that are an important part of a healthy workplace culture. Everyone is feeling uneasy about the uncertainty of the situation, therefore offering kindness and support at this time is paramount.”

In light of loosening regulations

Issues around isolation and lack of support for the new temporary army of home workers are well documented. But what about the situation of those who want to work from home and stay safe, but are not allowed to? With the Prime Minister’s recent announcement encouraging those unable to work from home to return to work, Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO and Co-Founder of Content Guru, explores what this may mean for the contact centre industry – and its employees:

“Some employers have acted fast in deploying the latest cloud technology, which enables their customer service workers (known as ‘agents’) to switch to well-supported home-based operations without too much upheaval. However, research from the University of Strathclyde strongly suggests a worrying disconnect between what many contact centre operators still require, and what their agents are demanding.

“Strathclyde’s research shows that many contact centre agents understandably now see their working environment as a risky and dangerous place to be. And yet, many non-essential contact centres are still requiring agents to work onsite for continuous long shifts every day. Here, only limited social distancing measures are in place or even possible, whilst shared workstations and telephone headsets abound, and all in a potentially virus-ridden soup of recirculating air. When you consider that the majority (two-thirds) of contact centre employees have asked to work from home and yet just four per cent of those requests have been granted, it can seem that this is a sector not only taking a relaxed approach towards curbing the pandemic, but one that has not placed a high priority on the wellbeing and mental health of its workers.

“Strathclyde’s research should be a stark wake-up call for those operating contact centres. During the current lockdown period, deploying homeworking capabilities may be a case of business survival. However, protecting employees’ physical and mental health should be viewed as equally – if not more – important.”

This Mental Health Awareness Week, it is more important than ever for employees, but especially employers, to go the extra mile to address the topic of mental health, as we navigate these troubling and turbulent times together.

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